Friday, July 24, 2015


Looking back on history, it's amazing to see how fashions have changed so fast and so drastically in a hundred years. What was it like as a young girl in Victorian times? They dressed similar to their mothers, except for hair allowed to flow freely, in braids, or held a la Alice in Wonderland with a headband. And skirts were only to the knee. They were educated to various degrees depending on their social class, learning flower arranging, dancing, embroidery, or cooking, sewing, and keeping house depending on social class.

John George Brown - 1888
In the Victorian age, hourglass figures were all the rage. Mothers put their girls in corsets even during early childhood to train their posture; once they reached puberty, the waist was trained further. Why all the hoopla over a woman's "figure"? What better way to establish her future marriage eligibility? It was an outward physical sign of readiness. When teen girls put their hair up and lowered their skirts, the game was on - and heaven help a spinster.

Teenage Girl in Massachusetts
Ladies in the upper and middle classes had nothing else to hope for except as a wife to a prosperous husband. Even after the turn of the twentieth century, middle class women who worked as typists or office girls stopped working (outside the home, of course!) after marriage. Becoming a wife meant raising children and keeping house for middle class women, and upper class women had the luxury of servants - nannies, maids, etc. Lucky them. For some women, their "figure" became their "fortune" - for those depending on their beauty to gain a stage career. Voluptuousness in the right places meant a lot.

One case in point - Anna Held.

Anna's 18-inch waist
Helene Anna Held, aka Anna Held, was born in 1872 in Warsaw, Poland - which was at the time part of the Russian Empire. Her parents, a German-Jewish glove maker and a French-Jewish wife, fled to Paris nine years later in 1881. Of their eleven children, only Anna survived - and began singing on the streets to make a few pennies. When her father died, Anna and her mother moved to England. Anna soon chose to go on stage.

15-year-old Anna and her mother
She returned to Paris as a young woman. Her popularity rose due to her beauty, boldness, willingness to show her legs, flirtatious manners, and suggestive songs. Anna is counted among the top of the Victorian beauties of her day,  including Lily Langtry, Lillian Russell, and Lotta Crabtree.

Anna showing a shapely leg
Anna was also one of the first women to ride a bicycle, and ooh-la-la! did she make a splash.

Showing a little more leg
While Anna appeared on stage in 1896, at London's Palace Music Hall, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., saw her perform and offered her an exorbitant salary of $1500 a week, enormous for the era. Anna floated off to Broadway, leaving behind an older husband and a daughter. "Flo" kept her in the public eye and popular with audiences by clever promotional schemes - that Anna bathed in milk and had several ribs removed to achieve that incredibly tiny waist.

Anna and Flo in happier times, 1905
Anna and Flo became common-law spouses during this time. She could not perform in his new 1909 Follies show due to pregnancy, but had an abortion. Ziegfeld soon left Anna for another actress and then ended up marrying the actress Billie Burke in 1914 (Glinda the good witch in The Wizard of Oz.) But both Anna and Flo benefited by their partnership in New York City.

Anna and her famous figure
By the time Word War I began, Anna's fortune had added up to the millions. During the war, fashions and figures changed and the slim silhouette dominated. Just look at the difference in the corsets from 1870 to 1920.

Thirty Year Change in Corsets

Also bringing about change - the suffrage movement, the war's demands for fabric and food, and the 1920s flapper era. But ladies never truly tossed out their "foundations" until the late 1960s.

Flappers in 1920s

With a few exceptions, such as Marilyn Monroe and the Barbie doll, so much for the hourglass figure!

Reference Sources:

Famous People Profiles - Anna Held
The Cabinet Card Gallery
John George Brown - American Painter
Fashion News for 1905
Flappers on Pinterest
Undergarments on Pinterest

Mystery author Meg Mims earned a Spur Award from WWA and also a Laramie award for her western historical mystery series, Double Crossing (still 99c!) and Double or Nothing. Meg -- also one-half of the writing team of D.E. Ireland for Agatha-Award nominated mystery series featuring Eliza Doolittle & Henry Higgins for Minotaur books -- lives in Southeastern Michigan with her husband and a sweet Malti-poo. She loves reading and writing novels, novellas and short stories, both contemporary and historical.
Meg's novellas - Santa Paws  Santa Claws  Home for the Holidays

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  1. It's the flappers for me, and a big 'no thank you' for Anna's type.

    I had never realized - i.e., never paid attention - to the dramatic changes in what was considered a sexy figure in our past.

    Change does come, though. When I was young, girls wore their skirts four inches below the knee. I remember how startling is was when hem lines came up above the knee. Ah, fashion. How fickle.

    Thanks for the post, Meg.

    1. You're welcome, Frank. Ah... memories!

  2. And today's Kim Kardashian certainly gets a lot of publicity about her figure without a girdle!

    1. Oh you betcha. My mother in the 60s would DARE go outside the house without her "face" (makeup) and her "foundation." LOL

  3. It is amazing that women went from tiny waists, big bosoms and big hips to flat chests, straight silhouettes, and slim hips. At least they moved into more comfortable dresses.
    Unfortunately, women still base their self-esteem on looks. No one seems to appreciate the goodness and wisdom of an older woman. We are intensely keen on youth and pretending we'll never die or grow old. For all the advances we've made, people don't seem to care about women with intelligence, wisdom, generosity, and spirit like Jane Goodall. Instead, people put their focus on looks, youth and shallow thinking.
    One thing I find fascinating about clothing from the Victorian age and the flappers is the extreme attention to detail--embroidery, crochet, lace, tassels, smocking, and so on. Their clothing were works of art.
    Great post, Meg.

    1. All VERY good points, Sarah! It's always been about beauty, and if you don't have it, heaven help you. Unfortunately, it seems society is moving even more into that realm given the plastic surgery celebs do that make them almost unrecognizable! Sad, really.